KENAI -- The possibility of permanent damage to Alaska salmon streams remains a major concern among critics of proposed surface coal mining within the Chuitna River watershed.
The Alaska Department of Natural Resources held a public hearing Wednesday in Kenai that drew nearly 150 people -- including sport and commercial fishermen, lodge owners and Alaska Native subsistence users.
Most of them said they worry that salmon streams could not be restored after mining, the Peninsula Clarion reported.
"I've looked at many, many projects of this magnitude, and none of them have been able to restore the environment back to the original conditions," said Debbie Oudiz, a Homer resident and retired environmental toxicologist who worked for the California Environmental Protection Agency for more than 25 years.
Last January, the Chuitna Citizens Coalition and Cook Inletkeeper submitted a petition to protect the Cook Inlet and its surrounding communities from environmental damage associated with strip-mining proposed by PacRim Coal.
Part of PacRim's plan calls for the removal of 11 miles of Middle Creek, a tributary deemed by the Department of Fish and Game to be significant to salmon spawning in Cook Inlet. The company claims it would be able to restore the stream after more than 25 years of the mine's operation.
Oudiz called the plan to rebuild the stream "totally unsubstantiated," saying PacRim has presented no data supporting its claims or any past instances where restoration has been successful.
"I've seen the fishing industry die in California, Oregon and Washington," she said. "It will happen here. And when it happens here, it will be phenomenally devastating to the lifestyle, the economy and the state."
Another major concern at the hearing was setting a dangerous precedent for future mining projects in Alaska.
"Maybe 150 people will have high-paid jobs, and the people who are putting in this thing will probably make millions on it, if not billions," said Linda Feiler of Anchor Point.
"And what will the communities in Alaska get for it? We'll have no jobs, we'll have no salmon, we'll have polluted waters, and we'll have polluted air."
Dan Graham, the Chuitna mining project manager, told the hearing the proposed mine and maintenance of a healthy salmon level in the area were not mutually exclusive goals.
Another hearing was expected to be held in Tyonek before the Department of Natural resources decides whether to accept, partially accept or deny the petition.